“No­body smokes flow­ers any­more”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - INNOVATION -

In a con­verted gas sta­tion by an enor­mous stone Bud­dha in Men­do­cino County, Calif., Tim Blake stands in front of a mound of cannabis “tri­chomes.” Th­ese crys­talline hairs, col­lected from dried mar­i­juana buds, are rich in THC, the psy­choac­tive in­gre­di­ent in cannabis re­spon­si­ble for get­ting a per­son high. One of Blake’s male, twen­tysome­thing em­ploy­ees pours a salt­shaker’s worth of th­ese hairs onto a piece of parch­ment pa­per, which the em­ployee folds in half and flat­tens in an in­dus­trial heated press. As the crys­tals melt into a green­ish, sticky, translu­cent solid, a skunky, piney smell per­me­ates the air. They’re mak­ing “rosin,” and the aroma of it is as com­mon in th­ese parts as the smell of garbage is in New York City come sum­mer.

Rosin (pro­nounced RAW-zin) could very well be the fu­ture of mar­i­juana, and Blake its Henry Ford. “Right now, rosin is tak­ing over the mar­ket,” says the sil­ver-haired 59-year-old, dressed like a sub­ur­ban con­trac­tor in a Carhartt jacket over a fleece and blue­jeans on a Jan­uary morn­ing. Rosin, for those who don’t sub­scribe to High Times, is a cannabis ex­tract or con­cen­trate, which mean the same thing. Ex­tracts range from solid to liq­uid and go by names that de­scribe their con­sis­tency—in­clud­ing “shat­ter,” “wax,” and “oil”—de­pend­ing on the pro­cess­ing tech­nique. Added to other prod­ucts, they’re re­spon­si­ble for a stun­ning va­ri­ety of ed­i­ble, top­i­cal, and smok­able mar­i­juana prod­ucts. Nowa­days you can get your fix pop­ping gel caplets, suck­ing on mints, munch­ing on crack­ers, in­hal­ing from va­por­izer pens, crack­ing open en­ergy drinks, and slather­ing on skin cream. If none of those op­tions sounds ap­peal­ing, there are even sup­pos­i­to­ries.

Rosin is the ex­tract du jour, and con­nois­seurs are tak­ing to it like ston­ers to a 1 a.m. Taco Bell run. Un­like other ex­tracts, rosin is only smoked; you won’t find it in a cracker. But the up­side is that smok­ing ex­tracts—aka dab­bing—is the pre­ferred way to in­ter­act with mar­i­juana if you’re into pot and un­der 30, just as baby boomers had joints and Gen Xers had bongs. Smok­ers love the qual­ity and po­tency of the “clean” high and say the fla­vor fully ex­presses mar­i­juana’s de­sir­able char­ac­ter­is­tics. “Smok­ing flow­ers dates a per­son,” says Blake. “A guy told me they cleaned out all the old bongs in his head shop—they don’t even have them. No­body smokes flow­ers any­more.”

Not no­body—though data on how many peo­ple still smoke joints or take bong hits is, not shock­ingly, a bit cloudy. Blake es­ti­mates that by 2030, con­cen­trates will ac­count for 90 per­cent of le­gal pot sales. Al­ready, the num­ber of con­cen­trates in­dexed on Leafly, the Web’s most vis­ited source for cannabis-re­lated in­for­ma­tion, with 8 mil­lion monthly ac­tive users, has quadru­pled since last sum­mer. Ex­tracts make up about 20 per­cent of items listed on the site, and in cer­tain mar­kets, such as Ore­gon and Bri­tish Columbia, they con­sti­tute well over a quar­ter of all prod­ucts. “Ex­tracts pro­vide so many ben­e­fits to con­sumers, in terms of con­trol over dosage or con­ve­nience of con­sump­tion,” says Brendan Kennedy, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Pri­va­teer Hold­ings, which owns Leafly.

Blake says for­mer dorm room hot­box­ers will start to ap­pre­ci­ate the pri­vacy of odor­less pot oils puffed through “vape”

pens and the pow­er­ful, fas­tact­ing high that glass, bong­like “dab rigs” en­able. To com­pare it to an­other vice, dab­bing is like tak­ing a shot of pre­mium vodka. Smok­ing a joint is like nurs­ing a glass of house red.

What Blake is build­ing in that con­verted gas sta­tion is an ex­tract op­er­a­tion ca­pa­ble of scal­ing; right now, the mar­ket leans to­ward DIYers us­ing straight­en­ing irons to heat tri­chomes. Think of it like this: Straight­en­ing-iron rosin is to Blake’s prod­uct as Jesse Pinkman’s “Chili P” meth was to Heisen­berg’s “blue crys­tal” in Break­ing Bad. And al­though Blake is far from the only ex­tract pro­ducer in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, let alone the U.S., he has ad­van­tages. He’s the founder of the Emer­ald Cup, one of the coun­try’s most im­por­tant cannabis trade shows; the event, held at the Sonoma County Fair­grounds each win­ter, started small in 2003, but at­ten­dance rose to 20,000 by 2015. As pro­hi­bi­tion has given way to le­gal­iza­tion, Blake has acted as a spokesman and an am­bas­sador to what he and his peers call the “straight world.” He runs a dis­pen­sary, Heal­ing Har­vest Farms, and teams up lo­cally with a com­pany that makes the CO2 car­tridges that power vape pens. “Tim Blake is a real in­no­va­tor who has shaped this in­dus­try,” says Les­lie Boc­skor, an in­vest­ment banker and in­dus­try watcher re­ferred to as the War­ren Buf­fett of cannabis. Blake’s bet on ex­tracts, Boc­skor says, may set him up to shape it again. “There are many peo­ple who be­lieve the fu­ture of the en­tire in­dus­try is con­cen­trates,” he says.

Blake is us­ing the Emer­ald Cup as a plat­form to el­e­vate ex­tracts from a recre­ational prod­uct for dab­bers to a sub­ject wor­thy of se­ri­ous at­ten­tion. His rosin busi­ness has been up and run­ning for about a half-year. He takes an all-nat­u­ral ap­proach, mix­ing leaves or buds with ice and wa­ter, fil­ter­ing the slush, and dry­ing the re­sult. Other pro­duc­ers use com­pressed CO2 or sol­vents such as al­co­hol and bu­tane to strip the plants of their oils and chem­i­cal com­pounds, in­dus­trial meth­ods that are used to re­move oil from peanuts, soy­beans, and corn. Blake’s way of do­ing things is also par­tic­u­larly good at re­tain­ing “ter­penes,” or­ganic com­pounds that give mar­i­juana strains their dis­tinc­tive scents and af­fect the na­ture of the high. “We’ve de­vel­oped what we be­lieve is the finest con­cen­trate-mak­ing op­er­a­tion in the world,” Blake says.

Cur­rently he’s pro­duc­ing about 15 pounds of rosin a month, which re­tails for more than $60 a gram. (Con­cen­trates fetch higher prices than dried herb, from $30 to $90 per gram, com­pared with about $10 for flow­ers.) He says le­gal­iza­tion will spur an ex­pan­sion in the mar­ket that could spike out­put to 100 pounds a month. That would bring in about $2.7 mil­lion ev­ery 30 days—or as some­one us­ing his prod­uct might put it, a ton of money, dude.

More broadly, U.S. sales of le­gal cannabis hit $5.4 bil­lion last year, up from $4.6 bil­lion the year be­fore, ac­cord­ing to Ar­cView Mar­ket Re­search. The ac­tual mar­ket is much larger. Colorado, where weed’s been le­gal for recre­ational use since 2012, es­ti­mates that only 60 per­cent of the pot con­sumed there is pur­chased from li­censed out­lets.

Money and in­no­va­tion in the mar­i­juana mar­ket, as well as chang­ing pol­i­tics, have at­tracted Sil­i­con Val­ley’s at­ten­tion. In­vestor Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund par­tic­i­pated in a $75 mil­lion fund­ing round with Pri­va­teer last year; in ad­di­tion to Leafly, Pri­va­teer owns Til­ray, a $26 mil­lion pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity on Canada’s Van­cou­ver Is­land. And in Cal­i­for­nia, Sean Parker of Face­book and Nap­ster fame is back­ing an ini­tia­tive that’s likely to ap­pear on Novem­ber’s state bal­lot. It’s gained trac­tion with pro­cannabis groups and even Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Gavin New­som.

Should it pass, the Adult Use of Mar­i­juana Act would le­gal­ize the pur­chase of weed by any­one 21 and older—23 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans—and fur­ther boost the state’s le­gal cannabis mar­ket, which Ar­cView re­cently val­ued at $1.3 bil­lion. (Cur­rently, only medic­i­nal mar­i­juana is le­gal.) At the Emer­ald Cup in De­cem­ber, Blake pub­licly en­dorsed the idea, which some in the com­mu­nity are wary of for fear it might cor­po­ra­tize the in­dus­try. There doesn’t ap­pear to be polling on Parker’s mea­sure; how­ever, a 2015 sur­vey con­ducted by the Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia found that 53 per­cent of Cal­i­for­ni­ans sup­ported le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational weed, the most since polling be­gan.

Blake might just be in the right place at the right time. Through the years, he’s tried his hand in in­dus­tries such as mu­sic (he started a record la­bel that signed funk mu­si­cian Bootsy Collins), real es­tate, and vir­tual re­al­ity. His gas sta­tion—which he bought af­ter hav­ing a vi­sion dur­ing tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion— is also a spir­i­tual re­treat and psy­che­delic-trance mu­sic venue.

Tech­ni­cally, what he’s do­ing now is against fed­eral law, though in Cal­i­for­nia it’s a le­gal gray area. Blake be­lieves his method is le­gal be­cause he doesn’t use sol­vents. Raids hap­pen, though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hasn’t pri­or­i­tized crim­i­nal­iz­ing th­ese en­ter­prises. Whether a Pres­i­dent Trump would con­sider what he’s do­ing part of mak­ing Amer­ica “great again” is un­clear, but Blake ap­pears safe for now and sees noth­ing but growth ahead. “The kids com­ing up, this is how they’re be­ing in­tro­duced to cannabis,” he says. “When you’ve tried ex­tracts, you go and smoke a joint and it tastes dirty.” <BW>

Op­po­site page: Blake’s con­verted garage. This page: An as­sort­ment of dab rigs; Blake in Men­do­cino County

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